Attending to Attention: Church Bells, Prayer Calls, and American Public Space

Curator's Note

This CBS News clip from 2004 describes an (at the time) ongoing dispute about the Islamic call to prayer, or azan, in Hamtramck, Michigan.  For six months in 2004, controversy raged in Hamtramck, receiving national attention, as residents debated a proposed amendment that would exempt the azan from the local noise ordinance.  The call to prayer functioned as a flashpoint in disputes about the integration of Muslims into this historically Polish-Catholic dominated urban enclave.  No one openly contested Muslims’ right to worship in their mosques, but some neighbors resisted and regarded as inappropriate this public pronouncement of Islamic presence that audibly intruded upon public space.

Christian and Muslim communities have long used auditory announcements, such as church bells and prayer calls, to mark social and geographic boundaries.  The Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer even described parishes as “acoustic communities,” constituted by those within auditory range of its church bells, its boundaries mapped aurally rather than visually.  But such an understanding assumes a homogenous listening community, a uniform audience of willing hearers who interpret the meaning of these public pronouncements in similar ways.  In the pluralistic public spaces of American life, these sounds reach multiple, heterogeneous audiences—both intended and unintended, willing and unwilling—who hear and respond to them in different ways.  These public sounds mediate contact among diverse religious communities.

Critics of the azan described it as “noise” and argued that they should not “have to” listen to it.  Proponents, in turn, argued that the azan was no different from church bells, and moreover, that religious sounds could not possibly constitute noise.

“Noise” is a funny thing.  On the one hand, it refers simply to loud sounds.  But more typically, it refers to sounds that are unwanted – or, in the words of Peter Bailey, to sounds that sound “out of place.”  Sounds are not inherently noisy.  Instead, for sounds to become noise, one must take note of them.

But which sounds were noticed in Hamtramck?  For the azan’s critics, it was only the sounds of newcomers—those sounds that seemed different, foreign, “out of place”—that could be heard as noise.  When its proponents analogized the azan to church bells, however, they encouraged Hamtramck residents to take note of the bells whose sounds had previously faded into the background, unmarked and unnoticed, taken for granted even as they participated in the acoustic construction of public space.  Calling attention to church bells made audible the ways that Hamtramck’s public space already was shaped by the sounds of particularistic religious expression—and rendered these sounds similarly problematic.  Significantly, some of the azan’s critics responded to this analogy by re-defining church bells as in fact “secular,” describing their function as marking secular time, rather than announcing times of sacred service.  In other words, as soon as church bells were noticed, their public religious character could also become the cause of complaint.  They, too, became potential sources of noise that had to be either secularized or silenced.

Attending to the ways that public sounds mediate contact among diverse religious communities thus encourages us to attend to attention.  What can we learn from paying attention to attention, from studying what sounds people take note of?  Why, we might ask, are certain sounds noticed and not others?  In short, how does religion come to be heard not as religion but as noise?



This is a great topic for highlighting now only how religion comes to enter and define public space, but also how multiple media coverge to mark this as a "newsworthy" story. I wonder how CBS decided to pick up this particular local spat as a story of national significance? Its symbolic appeal is, of course, abundantly clear, although it is worth asking what local politics get lost as this tale becomes overdetermined by the mega-narratives of Christian-Muslim "clash" and secular tolerance. (The newscaster was clearly determined to cast himself in the latter camp, not only in the "balanced" reference to churchbells ringing five times daily, but also in the cryptic closing remarks).

The televisual presentation of the controversy also foregrounds a factor that might otherwise be lost: race. Though verbally unmarked, the images tell a story that may not bear on the question of religion. The Hamtramck affair seems as much about the politics of immigration as the politics of secularism, and the rhetoric of the azan's "cancerous" spread could just as easily-- and perhaps more plausibly-- implicate Muslim bodies as Muslims' faith.

This topic fascinates me.  The seemingly paradoxical way that sound is distinguished from noise by not being heard can tell us something important about the way that publics are constructed in America.  Many contemporary theories of publics rely on publics coming into being through communication.  Scholars like Walter Lippman understand public opinion to depend on the circulation of texts, like newspaper articles.  Lippman worries that a lack of attention will stymie attempts to build public opinion.  Michael Warner understands publics to come into being when addressed and, as such, require a function of attention by that public, even if their attention is nominal.  Here, however, Isaac Weiner points out that the"public" of Hamtramck is formed through a lack of attention or a refusal to be addressed.  Media (here the media of sound) makes a public precisely by failing to communicate.

Jenna, constituting a public through lack of attention is a great way to put it, I think.  Thanks for your valuable theoretical framing of this issue.

Bart, you raise multiple points that are also spot-on, I think (including, of course, how this issue was as much about the politics of race and immigation as about religion).  The relations between global and local, which you highlighted in your post yesterday, also shaped this Hamtramck dispute in significant ways.  The national media attention (not only from CBS, but from many different media outlets) completely ignored local politics related to competing political factions (one dominated by a Polish-Catholic "old guard", the other dominated by an urban bohemian "new guard") -- this has become only more complicated in the last few years as various local politicians have repeatedly re-characterized their positions on the azan in order to appeal to different local constituencies.

But the global/local issues also point to the different ways that the "local" gets defined -- also at stake in Hamtramck was this power to define the local.  For many Hamtramck residents, this was an issue properly confined to Hamtramck -- confined to those who would "actually" have to hear the azan.  Many complained that this dispute was largely manufactured by "outsiders" (a contention that was not wholly wrong).  But for these "outsiders," including a group of evangelical Christians from rural Ohio who called themselves "David's Mighty Men", what happened in Hamtramck had national implications -- they, too, saw themselves as part of the public constituted by the azan's call.  Yet their conviction that this was so was partially a result of the national media's involvement (a Fox News report had brought the dispute to this group's attention).  Even before the Hamtramck City Council gave the mosque permission to broadcast the azan throughout Hamtramck, then, the national media already had broadcasted it to the world.

Isaac, this is a fascinating issue, but your attention to attention is especially interesting. Extending Mary Douglas' understanding of dirt as "matter out of place" lets us ask about the relationship between religion and the conspicuousness of various sensational forms. That things would be marked as "religious" only as they are brought into focus seems to indicate a popular understanding of religion sharply opposed to Gramsci's understanding of it as a component of "spontaneous philosophy," that is, the taken-for-granted itself.

How does coming to attention operate in other ranges of affect and sensation? Do you think the stink of other people's food, or the visually monstrosity of pentagrams (as opposed, for instance, to crosses) worn in public schools mark boundaries in similar ways, or does the potential reach of sound make noise a special case? Would you recommed "noise" as an analogue to "dirt" with reference to other sensational forms drawn into this uncomfortable attention as well (e.g. visual noise), or are there more general terms you find useful?

As a partially deaf scholar, I struggle daily with the disintegration of sound into noise; noise exists at the limits of sound. For me, sounds become noises when they withhold meaning, when I am aware of them as drumbeats against flesh and cartilage rather than communications. I wonder if this physicality of auditory experience plays a role in the hostility of the community’s response. Perhaps the sound of the azan became noise at the moment when its rhetorical content was recognized not as a cultural signifier but as the movement of air, the crashing of molecules against the sensitive hairs of the inner ear. Noise penetrates; it can “pollute.” As a kind of physical intrusion, perhaps the azan was more threatening than visual or other sensory marks of difference in the community.

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